A porous border is the biggest challenge in curbing access to controlled substances

It is 3pm. A small tea shop along the several alleys of Chinese Lane in Phuentsholing is doing brisk business.

Along with tea, it sells Spasmo Proxyvon Plus (SP+).

A car is parked in front of the shop. Three Bhutanese men are drinking tea inside. They have reasons to drink tea here.

Tenzin (name changed) pays Nu 80 at the counter for eight blue tablets.

“I need it every morning,” he said adding that he pops in at least 16 pieces of SP+ a day in Phuentsholing. “In Thimphu, the doses decrease.”

Tenzin said he was 13 when he first tried marijuana. Later, he shifted to SP+.

With its close proximity to the Indian border town, Jaigaon, Phuentsholing is the place that is most accessible to controlled drugs for abuse and trafficking. The cross-border problem is the country’s biggest challenge in controlling drug abuse and illicit trafficking.

Both abuse and trafficking have increased over the years in Phuentsholing. In the last few years, over-the-counter (illegal) sales of SP+ and N-10 among medical shops across the border have stopped. But peddlers have proliferated and Bhutanese continue to have easy access.

In mid-August this year, the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) in Phuentsholing registered 46 cases related to drugs abuse and trafficking. By November 10, the number increased to 70.

Phuentsholing police also have caught individuals trying to traffic more than 13,000 to 14,000 pieces of SP+ this year.

Senior superintendent of police (SSP) in Phuentsholing, Wangchukla, said those indulging in the abuse and trafficking of these controlled substances come from all walks of life.

“Most of them are youth and there are government and private employees, students and teachers,” he said.

He said N-10 is not common compared to SP+. “It could be because of the price difference.”

A 65-year-old man from Darla (Tala) in Chukha is the oldest person caught in 2017. It was learnt that he was addicted to marijuana.

Compared to 2016 and 2015, the number of cases registered and persons arrested is still less this year. In 2016, a total of 86 cases were registered involving the arrest of 126 persons. In 2015, police registered 83 cases and arrested 107.

SSP Wangchukla said that smugglers use various methods to hide the contrabands. They conceal it inside the shoes, in the underwear, vehicle tyre and engines. “We check whenever we find people suspicious and when we are tipped off.”

He said some arrests are made at the entry gate and some at the Rinchending gate. “In case of smuggling, most are caught at Rinchending.

“Some are caught when they are engaged in brawls along the streets.”

Sources say smugglers use vehicles to transport the substances, as consignments and deals are done beyond Gopi Mohan and Dalsingpara, the outskirts of Jaigaon. It is believed that the drugs are sold from homes. Large consignments also come from Hasimara and beyond and traffickers change vehicles and divert routes to transport the substances.

On January 31 this year, Phuentsholing police caught a 28-year-old woman from Toedbesa, Punakha, at Rinchending check post with 5,341 pieces of SP+ and 200 pieces of N10 in a taxi. She had invested Nu 21,000 at Baubazaar, across the border to traffic the drugs.

Police said it was her 42nd time smuggling.

The lure of controlled substances has not spared the youth, including students. Until now, police arrested 12 students in Phuentsholing.

Karma (name changed), 22, said he started abusing SP+ in October 2016. He tried the drug out of curiosity after he saw his friends doing it.

Today, he cannot do without the drug. “I tried quitting it for two days. I suffered from severe joint pain and trauma.”

Karma claims to buy the contrabands from Baubazaar across the border. He said he would not opt for rehabilitation services even if the government provided it.

Prakash (name changed) is one of the 554 people who benefitted from the Supreme Court’s judgment of July 27 this year, which allowed those arrested with SP+ between September 1, 2015, and June 6, 2017, to pay thrimthue in lieu of prison terms.

“The verdict was a blessing,” he said. “I have not relapsed and I wouldn’t.”

After the Supreme Court’s judgment on July 27, Phuentsholing police registered 15 cases in which 21 people were arrested with SP+.

The increase in abuse and trafficking of drugs among youth in the country has worried Chithuen Phendey Association’s (CPA) executive director Tshewang Tenzin. Sharing his observation during a 14-day stay in Phuentsholing, he said it was “very easy” to avail and bring drugs from across the border.

Addiction, Tshewang Tenzin said is pain, suffering, and discomfort about a person’s psychology and mentality. The government does not study the reasons behind addiction, he said, adding it just highlights the number of increasing addicts.

“There are no proper studies,” he said. “Media also has an important role rather than just reporting on the numbers and cases.”

But entries and exits from the gates in the border towns of Phuentsholing and Jaigaon cannot be strictly monitored for drugs given the traffic and the huge number of vehicles plying the road every day.

Back at the Chinese Lane, Tenzin has consumed all eight SP+ pills. “I want to quit but it is difficult,” he said. “It is a part of my life now.”

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing